One could argue that, at this stage in his career, a Bruce Springsteen album will be two things: never as good as his best work and still better than any new rock music releases.
With Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s 17th album, he somehow confounds this notion by delivering a record great enough to be considered alongside his best work. Sure, there are experiments with segment of Bruce-penned rap in “Rocky Ground,” some percussion loops, and Dropkick Murphy-style stomp rock with “Death to My Hometown” and “Shackled and Drawn.”
But what Wrecking Ball really flies is a gospel music flag. The chord changes, the church choir voices and the lyrics that ultimately forsake resignation for hope.
Is it about Occupy Wall Street, as many focused on before its release? I d argue more that that is too narrow of an assessment. Instead, it is about the country, and the economy, and what the past few years has done to the psyche of those who are living without the safety net of millions of dollars in the bank. Looked at in these thematic terms, it relates more to Born in the USA than any other record he has made.
The most familiar (i.e. 70’s and 80’s Bruce rock) sounds come from the title cut, “We Take Care of Our Own,” and (due to its inclusion in the past ten years of shows) “Land of Hope and Dreams,” recast here as a focused, kicking rock anthem. These are the songs most easily digested by fans. They lend familiarity to the set, allowing for some sonic risks on the other cuts.
The centerpiece is “Jack of All Trades”, a Nebraska-esque sound wrapped around a song about a man who can do a lot of things, but nothing about problems bigger than himself. Still, he tries to convince his girl that it will “be alright”.
The album is wholly and unmistakably a Bruce Springsteen rock record. Hints of his Seeger Sessions work is never too far away — and that looseness is welcome.
And when Clarence Clemons’ sax solo rings during the latter half of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the melancholy is absorbed by the notion that Springsteen has figured out how to mix his old with a touch of new, with the help of producer Ron Aniello. The album will be one of the best rock (or other) albums of 2012.
The bedlam of Born in the USA will never return; that was a blaze that burned far too high and wide to be repeated. But what Wrecking Ball does is show an American rock and roll singer, nearly 30 years down the road from that cultural moment, still able to capture a sound and emotion that resonates deeply.